Someone has to be a trailblazer. Or a sacrificial lamb.
Before I begin, let me state that I have no underlying health conditions or I probably wouldn’t be flying just yet. Because I work from home and can work from anywhere, I typically go back to St. Louis every three months to see my elderly dad. I couldn’t wait out coronavirus and not see him for a year or more or I might never see him again.
As he said, “I’d rather see you and die from it than not see you.”
Yes, I’m just that special. Or maybe he’s just that lonely. Let’s assume it’s the former.
Before I left, I got a Covid test as a safety measure for him. It’s not foolproof, but I figured it couldn’t hurt.
I flew out of Palm Springs, CA and connected in Dallas, American’s biggest hub. The number of travelers is increasing every day now – almost 600,000 a day now, verses 89,000 at the lowest point in April – but still a far cry from the two million a day at this time last year. Nonetheless, there was a line at the American counter, so I used one of the self-check-in computer kiosks (Purell-ing after). But there was no one to take my checked bag, so I had to get in the full-service line and wait.
When I got up to an agent, he looked at my printed boarding pass.
“Wait – did you check in already?”
I pointed to the terminals.
“Oh, are those ON?”
I considered several responses like, “No, I have a fake boarding pass printer in my bag, right next to the meth,” but figured, hey, the rules are constantly changing right now. It’s not his fault.
No one was social distancing in the check-in lines, mostly because Palm Springs is a very grope-y town. Or there just isn’t room at smaller airport check-in counters to allow this. Or both.
At security, there was only one line open (no separate TSA Pre-check, like there would normally be – although they gave me the plastic card so I’d get Pre-check treatment), but since the airport had about a third of its typical passengers, this just meant that security took 7 minutes instead of 4. You gotta love small airports. Social distancing was mostly enforced in line.
(Social distancing at Palm Springs airport gate)
In Palm Springs (which will likely hold true for smaller airports until the fall), many stores and restaurants were closed. The gate agent made an announcement saying we should get food and drink in the airport, because there would be none on board. So, I battled the hordes in the one open store near my gate to buy a bottle of water and a granola bar. The sense of accomplishment was thrilling. This must be how the natives on Borneo feel, I marveled.
Virtually everyone was wearing a mask in the airport. It’s California. Although at the gate, there was a crew member who was “deadheading” (traveling to another city to work a flight), and he sat there for half an hour with his mask around his neck, talking to a stranger. Honestly, the LAST person I want to see without a mask on is a flight attendant who comes into close contact with hundreds of people a week.
At the gate, people were social distancing, until the agent called the flight. Then there was the typical rush of (as they’re referred to by business travelers) “gate lice” – people pushing forward like it’s Black Friday at Wal-Mart. Until the agent yelled at everyone to BACK THE F*** OFF. My words, not quite hers. But close.
(A very full Palm Springs-Dallas flight)
The flight to Dallas was 90% full, which was a little unnerving, especially since they’re not doing temperature checks on passengers. (To my knowledge, Frontier is the only domestic carrier doing it, which is akin to Spirit Airlines offering caviar and legroom.) Now, if a flight is 2/3 full, American sends out an email to let you rebook on a different flight for free, and I’d gotten one the day before; but because June flight schedules aren’t even half of what they normally are, my options were awful. (Flight schedules will bulk up slightly each month going forward.)
Onboard, everyone wore masks and was respectful of the rules. No delicious confrontations of entitled white people or conspiracy theorists, sadly, even though I had my camera at the ready. No one was coughing or sneezing, which was a relief on a flight that full. The plane did seem extra clean (with lighter schedules, cleaning crews don’t have to resort to the “cleaning theater” of the past). I debated licking a few surfaces to test it, but ultimately decided against it.
The flight attendants passed out “snack sacks” of pretzels, biscuit cookies and bottled water, along with a single serving packet of Purell – which, considering the flight left at 6:40am, was more than enough. Although the flight was 2.5 hours, as the gate agent had warned, no “better” food was available for purchase. That will probably change as daily passenger counts increase, since those $12 gas station-quality sandwiches are easy cash for the airlines.
(Hey, gang, let’s see if we can get even closer!)
A note here about full flights: right now, many passengers are checking the seat map in the days leading up to their flight to see how full it is. But this can be very misleading, especially if you’re flying into a hub city (like Dallas for American, Chicago for United, etc). Between the Basic Economy passengers whose seats don’t get assigned until at the airport, and people who will opt onto your flight at the last minute because their original flight got too full and made them nervous, there could be quite a few more seats filled than what shows on the seat map. The day before, I thought the Palm Springs flight would be 65-70% full – it was 90%.
At the Dallas (DFW) airport, the mask situation was somewhat different. Probably 70% of people were wearing them. Don’t mess with Texas. DFW is usually a mob scene where you could drop dead and people would just step over you, but it was much quieter than usual. Certainly not the ghost town airports were reported to be in April, but not the typical hordes, either. The passenger makeup seemed to be 90-95% leisure/personal travelers, judging by the lack of women in power suits and self-important men yelling into their phones.
At DFW, many shops were closed, but most of the restaurants were open. Be aware that at places like Starbucks, you have no options for adding stuff to your drink. Those thermoses of milk and such are MIA for the time being. So, now you get to annoy the crap out of the barista, directing them on how much to put in – wait, that’s too much! – which I‘m pretty sure they’re not paid enough for.
(A closed Starbucks at DFW)
On the 1.5 hour flight from Dallas to St. Louis, literally nothing was served, not even water. So, it’s a good idea to make a donation to your local airport and pick up a $4 bottle of your favorite drink. On the plus side, this flight was only about 30% full, so most people had a row to themselves if they wanted it, although the flight attendants were policing the exit rows for people trying to self-upgrade without paying. Because, you know, priorities.
The same situations occurred virtually verbatim on my return – empty flight to Phoenix (with lots of polite, “Don’t even think of sitting there” flight attendant directives when people tried to grab exit row seats without paying), and a 90% full one into Palm Springs. The one change is that this time, they handed out the “snack sack” as we boarded, so the only interaction with the flight attendants was when they came through for trash. Which was fine by pretty much everyone.
(Luxuriously empty Dallas-St. Louis flight)
Overall, the airlines seem to have their new operational routines mostly down now, and passengers are being respectful – happy, no doubt, that they can get from point A to point B without a 34-hour road trip and a divorce. And I’d be remiss not to point out there have been no reports of coronavirus being spread on flights under eight hours. Air is continuously circulated through HEPA filters and few people are talking onboard these days (even the flight attendants), which minimizes the risk, considering that you can’t effectively social distance unless you like being strapped to the wing like a dancer in a Busby Berkeley musical.
Would I do it again? I actually am flying again in July and August and October. So, yes. But I’ll take every precaution I can. Except for wearing a hazmat suit. Those don’t make my butt look good.
TIPS FOR SAFE TRAVEL:
- Bring hand sanitizer – duh. Airports have dispensers scattered about, but you want to do it ON THE PLANE as well. You can bring a bottle as large as 12 ounces in your carry-on.
- Bring wipes or spray sanitizer – Lysol wipes are still like gold bullion, so if you don’t have them, you can use one of those little spritzer bottles of sanitizer. (Don’t bring aerosol spray.) These are great for wiping/spraying the tray table, seatback entertainment monitor and seat belt. They’re also handy if you rent a car, for the steering wheel, door handles and controls.
- Open the air vents to blow any germs away from you.
- Wear glasses (or sunglasses) to minimize touching your eyes.
- Bring an empty plastic water bottle to fill (if the airport has water dispensers) and a baggie of snacks.
- THANK your flight attendants. They are front line workers!